My adult Christian life, both pre- and post-seminary, has been marked by theological passions. Holy Trinity, Incarnation, Eucharist, feminist language for divinity, ecclesial authority—at any given point in time these topics have captured and monopolized my intellect. I would buy and read books voraciously, visit libraries and xerox journal articles, write letters (and later emails) to famous and not-so famous theologians. Occasionally my passion of the moment would find its way into written form; inevitably it would find its way into my preaching. But there is one passion, indeed obsession, that has occupied my mind, heart, and soul for over forty-four years—the unconditionality of God’s love for humanity. I have struggled with it under different aspects—grace, justification, covenant and promise, sacramental absolution, worthy and unworthy communion—but always I am brought back to the grounding question: Does God love and forgive humanity—does God love and forgive me—gratuitously, unreservedly, unconditionally, absolutely, categorically, nontransactionally, without qualification, no hidden clauses, no ifs, ands, or buts?
Over the decades I have principally reflected upon the unconditionality of the divine love under the locus of justification by faith. The adventure began in seminary. How very odd that an Anglo-Catholic aspirant in an Anglo-Catholic seminary should stumble upon the writings of two Reformed theologians, James B. Torrance and his brother Thomas, and one Lutheran theologian, Robert W. Jenson. I emphasize the word “stumble.” My Nashotah House instructors certainly did not direct me to them, nor do I recall my seminary friends recommending them. Yet stumble upon them I did. It was my middler year. I must have been in the library perusing through journals, as I cannot figure out where else I would have found it: “The Unconditional Freeness of Grace” by James B. Torrance. The following passage grabbed me:
The important thing is that in the Bible, God’s dealings with men in creation and in redemption—in grace—are those of a covenant and not of a contract. This was the heart of the Pauline theology of grace, expounded in Romans and Galatians, and this was the central affirmation of the Reformation. The God of the Bible is a covenant-God and not a contract-God. God’s covenant dealings with men have their source in the loving heart of God, and the form of the covenant is the indicative statement, ‘I will be your God and you shall be my people’. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the God who has made a covenant for us in Christ, binding himself to man and man to himself in Christ, and who summons us to respond in faith and love to what he has done so freely for us in Christ. Through the Holy Spirit, we are awakened to that love and lifted up out of ourselves to participate in the (incarnate) Son’s communion with the Father.
Two things are therefore together in a biblical understanding of grace, the covenant of love made for man in Christ, between the Father and the incarnate Son. (a) On the one hand, it is unconditioned by any considerations of worth or merit or prior claim. God’s grace is ‘free grace’. (b) On the other hand, it is unconditional in the costly claims it makes upon us. God’s grace is ‘costly grace’. It summons us unconditionally to a life of holy love—of love for God and love for all men. The one mistake is so to stress free grace that we turn it into ‘cheap grace’ by taking grace for granted—the danger of the ‘antinomianism’ against which Wesley protested. The other mistake is so to stress the costly claims of grace that we turn grace into conditional grace, in a legalism which loses the meaning of grace.
The fallacy of legalism in all ages—perhaps this is the tendency of the human heart in all ages—is to turn God’s covenant of grace into a contract—to say God will only love you and forgive you or give you the gift of the Holy Spirit IF … you fulfill prior conditions. But this is to invert ‘the comely order of grace’ as the old Scottish divines put it. In the Bible, the form of the covenant is such that the indicatives of grace are prior to the obligations of law and human obedience. ‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, I have loved you and redeemed you and brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, therefore keep my commandments.’ But legalism puts it the other way round. ‘If you keep the law, God will love you!’ The imperatives are made prior to the indicatives. The covenant has been turned into a contract, and God’s grace—or the gift of the Spirit—made conditional on man’s obedience.1
I cannot say that Torrance’s article hit me like a thunderbolt, but I can say that it swung wide a door in my mind and heart through which rushed the liberating winds of the Spirit. Was this what the Reformation was about, the utter freeness of grace? A flurry of questions immediately came to mind. I have wrestled with them for decades, but JBT’s emphatic assertion that our sins and disobedience do not condition the divine love struck me then as impossibly true. Surely this is the heart of the gospel. Soon afterwards I discovered Tom Torrance’s and Robert Jenson’s writings on justification. I was converted and have not wavered since. The absolute love and mercy of God—this has been the evangelical engine that has powered my priesthood. In the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar:
The sign of Christ is legible only if we read his human love and self-gift unto death as the manifestation of absolute love. . . . It thus becomes clear that faith is ordered primarily to the inconceivability of God’s love, which surpasses us and anticipates us. This is the sole object, the sole daß (Martin Buber) of faith, as the Christian creed expresses it. Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed, and nothing else ought to be believed. This is the achievement, the ‘work’ of faith: to recognize this absolute prius, which nothing else can surpass; to believe that there is such a thing as love, absolute love, and that there is nothing higher or greater than it; to believe against all the evidence of experience (“credere contra fidem” like “sperare contra spem”), against every “rational” concept of God, which thinks of him in terms of impassibility or, at best, totally pure goodness, but not in terms of this inconceivable and senseless act of love.2
I devoted the next two decades to immersing myself in the literature on justification by faith. Perhaps the most challenging title I read during this time was a little book by the Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde, Justification by Faith—A Matter of Death and Life. Forde’s reflections dovetail nicely with the Torrances and Jenson, but is expressed with even greater existential urgency. What must we do to be saved? asks Forde. His answer: absolutely nothing!
We are justified freely, for Christ’s sake, by faith, without the exertion of our own strength, gaining of merit, or doing of works. To the age old question, “What shall I do to be saved?” the confessional answer is shocking: “Nothing! Just be still; shut up and listen for once in your life to what God the Almighty, creator and redeemer, is saying to his world and to you in the death and resurrection of his Son! Listen and believe! When one sees that it is a matter of death and life one has to talk this way. The “nothing” must sound, risky and shocking as it is. For it is, as we shall see, precisely the death knell of the old being. The faith by which one is justified is not an active verb of which the Old Adam or Eve is the subject, it is a state-of-being verb. Faith is the state of being grasped by the unconditional claim and promise of the God who calls into being that which is from that which is not. Faith means now having to deal with life in those terms. It is a death and resurrection.3
Forde dares to grasp the nettle—and grasp it too we must. It’s easy enough to speak of unconditional love. It is expounded in a plethora of books and articles, both academic and popular. Invariably the authors end up telling us that even God’s love has its limits, set by the bounds of human freedom. God can only invite. It is up to us to accept the gift, and if we do not, the gift is effectively nullified. At the critical moment, God’s unconditional love becomes conditional and we are abandoned to our self-chosen perdition. Love is replaced by law.
Forde shares with JBT the apprehension that every human being is enclosed within his ego, determined by the deep need to justify and defend himself to God, to others, and to himself—hence our unshakeable commitment to legalism and Pelagian works-righteousness. Let’s call this the Reformation version of original sin. The old Adam lives in a world of conditionalist consciousness; he lives by the if-then: if we believe such-and-such, if we think such-and-such, if we do such-and-such, then specific consequences, both good and ill, will obtain. At every step, the old Adam remains in charge of his life and eternal destiny. This is why we fight so hard against the proclamation of unconditional grace. It directly challenges our worldview and our hold upon personal identity. Who am I if by eternal decree God predestines my final future? How dare he interfere with my freedom? The nothing inevitably evokes indignation and fierce resistance. “Why is it,” someone once asked Forde after one of his lectures on justification, “that when anyone talks about the sheer grace and absolute mercy of God people get so angry?”
Why indeed? Because it is a radical doctrine. It strikes at the root, the radix, of what we believe to be our very reason for being. The “nothing,” the sola fide, dislodges everyone from the saddle, Jew and Greek, publican and pharisee, harlot and homemaker, sinner and righteous, liberal and orthodox, religious and non-relligious, minimalist and maximalist, and shakes the whole human enterprise to the roots. It strikes at the very understanding of life which has become ingrained in us, the understanding in terms of the legal metaphor, the law, merit and moral progress. Justification, the reformers said, is by imputation, freely given. It is an absolutely unconditional decree, a divine decision, indeed an election, a sentence handed down by the judge with whom all power resides. It is as the later “orthodox” teachers like to say, a “forensic” decree: a flat-out pronouncement of acquittal for Jesus’ sake, who died and rose for us. . . .
The gospel of justification by faith is such a shocker, such an explosion, because it is an absolutely unconditional promise. It is not an “if-then” kind of statement, but a “because-therefore” pronouncement: Because Jesus died and rose, your sins are forgiven and you are righteous in the sight of God! It bursts in upon our little world all shut up and barricaded behind our accustomed conditional thinking as some strange comet from goodness knows where, something we can’t really seem to wrap our minds around, the logic of which appears closed to us. How can it be entirely unconditional? Isn’t it terribly dangerous? How can anyone say flat-out “You are righteous for Jesus’ sake”? Is there not some price to be paid, some-thing (however miniscule) to be done? After all, there can’t be such a thing as a free lunch, can there?
You see, we really are sealed up in the prison of our conditional thinking. It is terribly difficult for us to get out, and even if someone batters down the door and shatters the bars, chances are we will stay in the prison anyway! We seem always to want to hold out for something somehow, that little bit of something, and we do it with a passion and an anxiety that betrays its true source—the Old Adam that just does not want to lose control.4
To proclaim the gospel rightly the preacher must find ways to speak the radical nothing: “There is nothing you can do to save yourselves. Without your permission, God has saved you in Christ and is saving you by the Spirit.” To preach the good news of Pascha is to scandalously declare to sinners the final judgment ahead of time: “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt 25:34). Forde elaborates:
For the point is that the unconditional declaration of justification, the imputation, the flat-out declaration, that which offends and shocks us so, that which shatters our ambitions for “something to do”—that declaration is our death and our life, the new beginning. It is the act which re-creates, redeems God’s creation. Death, you see, is put in the position of not being able to do anything according to the ways of this world—the law, religion, the upward climb—with all its plans and schemes. They suddenly stop, come to an end: “I through the law died to the law that I might live to God.” Both our vices and virtues come to a full stop. The justification declaration is precisely that: a full stop. “You have died,” says Paul. It is all over!5
The righteousness granted by the right preaching of the gospel thus enjoys an eschatological character. “It is,” as Forde puts it, “the totality of the ‘Kingdom of God’ moving in upon us.”6 To be justified by the word of the risen Christ is to be made a new creation. The gospel of unconditional grace is eschatological speech, speech that performatively enacts the final future. To hear and trust the evangelical promise is to die and be raised into the Kingdom with Christ and in Christ. Forde understands the inadequacies of the imputational model of justification. He believes that those who formulated this doctrine in the 16th and 17th centuries were attempting to reinterpret the preaching of the gospel as speech inspired by the Spirit, as speech that transforms and recreates by incorporating us into the coming Kingdom—speech that slays and makes alive, word that delivers us from the conditionalism of our fallen world into the new world of grace and Spirit. This liberation requires nothing less than our death and resurrection. The preacher is so much more than an encourager to live the good life and work for social justice. He is a prophet of the Kingdom, speaking the Word of God that accomplishes what it proclaims (Isa 55:11); he is a priest of the Eschaton, giving to communicants the Body and Blood of the glorified Lord. “Receiving and believing the word of justification is death and resurrection,” comments Forde. “It is the end and new beginning.”7
After decades of preaching this radical gospel of grace, I can confirm Forde’s analysis. No sermons of mine have evoked as much consternation as those that boldly declared the salvific “nothing.” We would believe anything except the evangelical claim that God has eternally elected us to glory. At any cost, even our own damnation, we would retain our “freedom” to irrevocably reject God’s gift of bliss. Let God be God, we say, but please not in this. We insist on acquiring salvation the old fashioned way—by earning it! But I can also confirm that many who have heard and believed the gospel of grace have been born anew in the power and freedom of the Spirit!
Critics of Forde have raised the objection that Forde has eliminated the process of sanctification—or as we Orthodox would say, theosis. If there is nothing for us to do, what then is the role of repentance, prayer, fasting, and the practices that inculcate virtue and intimacy with Christ? It is a weighty but not irresolvable concern. The short answer (mine, not Forde’s): they retain their necessary role but are now enveloped in God’s love and promise. Their necessity is that of grace, not works. We have died to the law and have been reborn in Christ. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17). This is what saving faith is—life joyfully lived in the baptismal gift of resurrection. As the Apostle Paul declares:
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. (Col 2:11-14: cf. Rom 6:1-14)
The old Adam has been slain, and we now live in the Eucharist of the Eschaton. We are saved by the nothing of grace because God’s love is absolute and unconditional: God wills our eschatological salvation and will accomplish it. He has sealed his commitment in the death of his Son. Yet there remains the mystery of our synergistic cooperation with the Spirit in our repentance, healing, and purification, enfolded in the liminal space between death and resurrection. As St Augustine famously declared: “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us.”8
In recent years I have come to see that the justification by faith controversy that shook the Latin Church in the 16th century is now being replayed in the current controversy over universal salvation. The burning gospel question in both is the same, the only difference being grammatical tense:
- Does God justify sinners, apart from their works and merit?
- Will God justify sinners, apart from their works and merit?
Justification by faith proclaims the utter freeness of the grace of God, gratuitously bestowed on all through the preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ. Apokatastasis is but the gospel of Christ’s absolute and unconditional love sung in an eschatological key.
 James B. Torrance, “The Unconditional Freeness of Grace,” Theological Renewal (June/July 1978): 7-15. Unfortunately my xerox copy of the article was badly damaged years ago by basement flooding, but I transcribed the article as a text document. The article has been reprinted in Trinity and Transformation, ed. Todd Speidell, pp. 276-287.
 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible, pp. 99, 101-102. This little book should be read alongside David B. Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved.
 Gerhard Forde, Justification by Faith, p. 22.
 Ibid., pp. 22-23.
 Ibid., pp. 34-35.
 Ibid., p. 51.
 Ibid., p. 36.
 Sermo 169,11,13:PL 38,923.